Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Character of William III.
By Gilbert Burnet (1643–1715)
From History of my own Time

THUS lived and died William the Third, King of Great Britain, and Prince of Orange. He had a thin and weak body, was brown haired, and of a clear and delicate constitution: he had a Roman eagle nose, bright and sparkling eyes, a large front, and a countenance composed to gravity and authority; all his senses were critical and exquisite. He was always asthmatical, and the dregs of the smallpox falling on his lungs, he had a constant deep cough. His behaviour was solemn and serious, seldom cheerful, and but with a few: he spoke little and very slowly, and most commonly with a disgusting dryness, which was his character at all times, except in a day of battle; for then he was all fire, though without passion; he was then everywhere and looked to everything. He had no great advantage from his education; De Wit’s discourses were of great use to him, and he, being apprehensive of the observation of those who were looking narrowly into everything he said or did, had brought himself under a habitual caution that he could never shake off, though in another scene it proved as hurtful, as it was then necessary to his affairs: he spoke Dutch, French, English, and German equally well; and he understood the Latin, Spanish, and Italian, so that he was well fitted to command armies composed of several nations. He had a memory that amazed all about him, for it never failed him: he was an exact observer of men and things: his strength lay rather in a true discerning and a sound judgment, than in imagination or invention: his designs were always great and good; but it was thought he trusted too much to that, and that he did not descend enough to the humours of his people, to make himself and his notions more acceptable to them: this, in a government that has so much of freedom in it as ours, was more necessary than he was inclined to believe; his reservedness grew on him, so that it disgusted most of those who served him; but he had observed the errors of too much talking, rather than those of too cold a silence. He did not like contradiction, nor to have his actions censured; but he loved to employ and favour those who had the arts of compliance, yet he did not love flatterers; his genius lay chiefly to war, in which his courage was more admired than his conduct; great errors were often committed by him, but his heroical courage set things right, as it inflamed those who were about him; he was too lavish of money on some occasions, both in his buildings and to his favourites, but too sparing in rewarding services, or in encouraging those who brought intelligence; he was apt to take ill impressions of people, and these stuck long with him; but he never carried them to indecent revenges: he gave too much way to his own humour, almost in everything, not excepting that which related to his own health: he knew all foreign affairs well, and understood the state of every court in Europe very particularly: he instructed his own ministers himself, but he did not apply enough to affairs at home: he tried how he could govern us by balancing the two parties one against another, but he came at last to be persuaded, that the Tories were irreconcileable to him, and he resolved to try and trust them no more. He believed the truth of the Christian religion very firmly, and he expressed a horror at atheism and blasphemy: and though there was much of both at his court, yet it was always denied to him, and kept out of sight. He was most exemplarily decent and devout in the public exercises of the worship of God, only on week days he came too seldom to them; he was an attentive hearer of sermons, and was constant in his private prayers, and in reading the Scriptures; and when he spoke of religious matters, which he did not often, it was with a becoming gravity: he was much possessed with the belief of absolute decrees: he said to me, he adhered to these, because he did not see how the belief of providence could be maintained upon any other supposition: his indifference as to the forms of church government, and his being zealous for toleration, together with his cold behaviour towards the clergy, gave them generally very ill impressions of him; in his deportment towards all about him he seemed to make little distinction between the good and the bad, and those who served him well, or those who served him ill: he loved the Dutch, and was much beloved among them; but the ill returns he met from the English nation, their jealousies of him, and their perverseness towards him, had too much soured his mind, and had in a great measure alienated him from them, which he did not take care enough to conceal, though he saw the ill effects this had upon his business. He grew, in his last years, too remiss and careless as to all affairs; till the treacheries of France awakened him, and the dreadful conjunction of the monarchies gave so loud an alarm to all Europe. For a watching over that court, and a bestirring himself against their practices, was the prevailing passion of his whole life: few men had the art of concealing and governing passion more than he had; yet few men had stronger passions, which were seldom felt but by inferior servants, to whom he usually made such recompenses for any sudden or indecent vents he might give his anger, that they were glad at every time that it broke upon them; he was too easy to the faults of those about him, when they did not lie in his own way, or cross any of his designs: and he was so apt to think that his ministers might grow insolent, if they should find that they had too much credit with him, that he seemed to have made it a maxim to let them feel how little power they had, even in small matters: his favourites had a more entire power, but he accustomed them only to inform him of things, but to be sparing in offering advice, except when it was asked: it was not easy to account for the reasons of the favour that he showed, in the highest instances, to two persons beyond all others, the Earls of Portland and Albemarle, they being in all respects men, not only of different, but of opposite characters; secrecy and fidelity were the only qualities in which it could be said that they did in any sort agree.

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